Media is everywhere and it shapes our lives. We use it to communicate. We spend hours scrolling through Twitter feeds on our iPhones. We turn on television and Netflix to unwind and escape. Media is an expression and a reflection of our culture. It has been used to spark social revolts and upheavals (I’m looking at you, Arab Spring), and it’s been used to sell us a bunch of stuff we don’t need. Essentially, media is a way to tell stories; sometimes we tell those stories in 140 characters and other times we tell them though pictures and videos, but the stories are there and the stories are about us.
Take the example of TOMS shoes. TOMS is the innovative shoe (and now eye glasses) manufacturers that started the “One for One” movement. For every pair of shoes they sell, they donate a pair to a child in need. Their advertising and marketing campaigns heavily feature the image of hip, socially conscious twenty-somethings strutting around in their TOMS, making a difference in the world. It’s been extremely successful, having given away over 2 million shoes to kids around the world. Part of their success comes from the story they tell about their customers. Who wouldn’t want to be seen as a hip, socially conscious twenty-something because of the shoes they’re wearing? As a person who owns his fair share of TOMS, I can attest to the fact that there’s an appeal to wearing the shoes and being associated with the One for One movement. Buying and wearing the shoes allows me to believe I’m a good person who cares about kids, which may or may not be the truth, but that truth should ultimately be determined, not by the shoes I wear, but by the collective scope of my actions.
Now, the point is not to undermine TOMS because being a conscious consumer is a good and necessary thing. Socially responsible businesses are places you should buy from. The point is to demonstrate the ways stories are used in media to influence us. If we’re being completely honest, the stories can be good or bad, true or false, genuine or manipulative. It takes a lot of discernment to believe the stories that are beneficial, beautiful, and true, as opposed to the stories that are shaming, coercive, and dangerous, because many of the stories being told are being told to us, and about us, from someone who doesn’t care if the story ruins us. For many companies the bottom line is about profit. And the best way to get us to buy into their message is by speaking to our vulnerabilities, attempting to define us, and telling us what we’re worth (and how we could be worth more).
So when we talk about media being exploitative, we mean that there are a lot of messages being sent our way that tell us we’re lacking, we’re not good enough, and we’re incomplete. These messages are intended to get us to buy something or experience something because that thing will make us complete. In reality, however, it won’t. It’ll simply leave us a little further down the road with one more thing that didn’t satisfy. There are a lot of unhealthy messages being perpetuated as normal, and the media we engage with affects the way we view ourselves and those around us. Ultimately, it isn’t about the one page Dolce and Gabanna [trigger warning] ad in the magazine or the three and a half minute music video – no, it’s about the collective impact all of these messages have on us.